Get Angry: The Year’s 10 Best Political Docs

From Eliot Spitzer to Daniel Ellsberg, documentary filmmakers didn’t lack engrossing subjects this year.

Michael Atkinson

<i>Waltz with Bashir</i> explores nightmares of the Israeli-condoned, 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Thanks largely to personal technology and its discontents, we’re living through a renaissance of activist filmmaking – never before in the history of popular media have nonfiction films been so convenient to execute, so inexpensive to finance and so easy to distribute. Every year oodles and oodles of angry political essay-films come out now, in theaters and/​or on DVD and streaming services, on every subject from war to Wall Street to industrial pollution, and no viewer can be blamed for feeling like a drowner in a sea of outrage. But you need see only 10 – the best political docs of 2010.

Inside Job (Sony) As thorough and well-researched and absolutely enraging an explication of the financial meltdown as we’re likely to get (since that seeming obligatory tsunami of thousand-page Grand Jury indictments will never be written), Charles Ferguson’s film is one of several Wall Street exposé docs this year. But it’s the one that needs to be seen, preferably with an Ativan.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Magnolia) Alex Gibney’s portrait of the felon-lobbyist is a lively, action-packed evidentiary affair, and if you didn’t quite understand what Abramoff did when his name hit the headlines in 2006, here’s where you’ll get it all straight. Which is what you should do, because the man’s outrageous career of graft, extortion, fraud, money laundering and possibly murder reveals the essential amorality of our federal circus so clearly that any withering hope you held that we lived in a democracy worthy of the word will be squashed.

Countdown to Zero(Magnolia) Lucy Walker’s fire-breathing film about the potentiality – nay, the inevitability – of a non-state actor acquiring or making a nuclear weapon from the Soviet Union’s lost stockpiles actually doesn’t have that much of a political axe to grind. It just sets out to steal your sleep, and it does. This is the one film of 2010 I frankly wish I hadn’t seen.

Gasland (New Video) Talk about nightmares: Josh Fox’s beautiful and poundingly distressing movie uncovers a secret march of destruction: a wave of deep-shale natural gas digging that, since Dick Cheney exempted the industry from any environmental regulation of any kind, has carpeted the U.S. with hundreds of thousands of drill sites that routinely destroy entire wildernesses and commonly turn people’s tap water into propane. Fox’s document should be a town-hall requirement in every town sitting on gas deposits. Which looks like something close to a full third of American municipalities.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (First Run) An orthodox but stirring recounting of Ellsberg’s famous conversion from a RAND Corp. functionary to the biggest whistleblower of the 20th century. When else did one man virtually stop a war all by himself? WikiLeaks critics, take note.

Waiting for Armageddon (First Run) This doc, by Kate Davis, Franco Sacchi and David Heilbroner, endeavors to document our three major monotheisms’ current lust for end times. It’s not an insignificant topic, and it does intimately involve hundreds of millions of people, mostly evangelicals, who love nothing better than to detail exactly how Biblical prophecy will scorch the Earth and of course rescue the handful of twinkly-eyed maniacs who are convinced they’re doing God’s business like no one else.

 Budrus (coming in May, Just Vision) Already touted in these pages, Julie Bacha’s film recounts how a patient, quiet longtime community organizer and local family man in the titular Palestinian village commits to a protest regimen of nonviolence, as the soldiers and bulldozers move in to erect the Partition Wall, in 2004 and 2005. Inspiring, as much for the sacrifice and reason exhibited by the villagers and the Israeli protesters that help them, as for the central figure himself, a heroic ordinary man who seems to be the governor or congressman we wish we all had, and never, ever will.

 Restrepo (Virgil) A beautifully made document of grunt life in the worst combat zone in Afghanistan, this film by Tim Hetherington and celebrity journalist Sebastian Junger is required viewing because of the thoughtless accolades it’s received from a political disengaged critical community. It’s immediate, powerful stuff, but it’s also a one-sided, pity-the-soldier piece of subtle, hawkish propaganda, in which we grow intimate with these heart-of-gold warriors even as they kill civilians, maim babies and then spend months bemoaning the death of a single platoon member for whom the film is named.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Magnolia) Alex Gibney’s characteristically thorough survey of the Spitzer history is compelling as indictment – not of Spitzer, but of the army of GOP honchos who spent years trying to bring him down – and as tragedy, in which privilege and self-indulgence robbed the landscape of an effective anti-corporate man of action.

The Oath (Zeitgeist) Also extolled in an earlier column, this strange and insinuating film by Laura Poitras focuses on a sleekly handsome Yemeni taxi driver who just happened to be Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, and a fervent jihadist, for much of the 90s. Now a kind of minor jihadist celebrity who loves the camera, he is also burdened by guilt, by having abandoned his role as a warrior, by the collision between his devotion and his divulgence of al Qaeda info to the FBI. Perhaps the most insightful, and yet inconclusive, film about jihadism yet made. 

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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